What Millennials Really Want Underscores Just How Uncertain Our Generation Is About The Future

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More proof that the differences between how millennials are living these days and how baby boomers lived has nothing to do with avocado toast: A recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau examines what millennials want and compares these wants to what young adults of the same age wanted during previous generations — and the results are a powerful reminder of the fact that things are very different now than they were 40 years ago. For today’s young adults, the future often looks much more uncertain to us — but we’re a resourceful group. We’re finding ways to deal with it. And none of it means we’re “lazy” or “failing to launch”; it just means that we’re doing what we have to do in order to survive.

The report, which is titled “The Changing Economics and Demographics of Young Adulthood: 1975-2016,” pulls its data from three surveys: The American Community Survey (ACS), the Current Population Survey (CPS), and the General Social Survey, (GSS). The data from the ACS addresses “the country’s people, housing, and economy at various geographic levels,” according to the report; the CPS data addresses “information about the economic and employment characteristics of the civilian, noninstitutionalized population”; and the data from the GSS  addresses the “beliefs, attitudes, and values that Americans have about adulthood.”

The age considerations for various topics jump around somewhat; in some instances, the report looks broadly at people who fall within the 18-to-34 age bracket, while for others, it narrows it down to more specific ranges (ages 20 to 24, for example, or 25 to 24). It can make for some complex reading, but I think that’s a good thing; after all, both during the ‘70s and today, the point in life at which someone might be when they’re 18 is often very, very different from the point in life they’re at when they’re 34. The space of 16 years matters, no matter what decade you’re considering.

The full report is worth reading, but here are a few highlights — a handful of topics on which today’s young adults differ from the young adults of the baby boomer generation, both in terms of how we think and in terms of what we’re actually doing:  

Money

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Regardless as to whether money is actually the root of all evil, it certainly does factor prominently into many of the differences between millennials and boomers. Everyone considers being financially secure an important part of adulthood — but because of how dramatically different the economic situation is today than it was in the 1970s, it’s a lot tougher to achieve financial security now. As a report from the Pew Research Center found in 2014, wages haven’t budged in decades; meanwhile, however, the cost of everything else has been steadily rising. Obviously that's going to matter quite a lot in terms of how we structure our adult lives.

Marriage And Kids

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We’ve been hearing it for a while now, but just as a reminder, yes, millennials are delaying marriage: According to the Census report, in the ‘70s, eight in 10 people were married by the time they hit age 30, while in 2016, the eight-in-10 statistic doesn’t apply until people hit age 45. Indeed, over half of Americans don’t think that being married is an important indicator of whether you’re an adult. The same is true of kids, by the way; over half of Americans don’t think that having children is an important indicator of whether you’re an adult.

More stats clearly demonstrate these beliefs in action, too — particularly with regards to women. Between 1976 and 2014, the survey found, the percentage of women between the ages of 20 and 24 who had been married fell from 57 to 17, while the percentage of those who had given birth dropped from 31 to 25.

All of this makes sense, too. We've already established that millennials think it’s important to be financially secure before you do things like get married or have kids, and since it’s a lot harder to become financially secure these days… well, you do the math. It’s not “failure to launch”; it’s responsible thinking and planning in our current economic situation.

Education

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You know what does matter to us, though? Education. More than 60 percent of today’s young adults think that finishing school is an extremely important contributor to adulthood status, and the percentages of those who have college degrees or higher reflect that belief: Fewer than 25 percent of 25-to-34-year-olds in 1975 had degrees, while one third of 25-to-34-year-olds today have them.

What’s clear is that as the job market has begun demanding more advanced qualifications even for entry level jobs, more young adults are going to college or getting advanced degrees to satisfy those demands. Consider the fact that in 1979, the typical high school graduate made 77 percent of what a college graduate made, according to the Pew Research Center — while in 2014, the number had dropped to just 66 percent. Gone are the days when a high school diploma was enough to get you in the door; not having a degree these days can ultimately cost you a lot in the long run.

The “Major Milestones”

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The survey classifies the four “major milestones” of adulthood as living away from your parents, having been married at least once, having kids, and being in the labor force. Adults in the 25-to-34 age group in 1975 were overwhelmingly likely to have hit all four, with almost half — 45 percent —having lived away from their parents, having been married, having kids, and being in the workforce. In 2016, however, adults in the same age group were significantly less likely to have been in this same proverbial boat — just 24 percent had done all four.

Here’s your reminder that, largely because of how different the world is now than it was when the boomers were coming of age, most millennials don’t consider things like “marriage” and “kids” and “homeownership” as markers of adulthood — nor should we have to.

Independent Households

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The Census report examines three different living situations: Living in an independent household, living in your parents’ household, and living with roommates. In 2015, 40.7 percent of 18-to-34-year-olds lived in independent households; 34.1 percent of them lived with their parents; and 25.2 percent lived with roommates. Consider, too, that of those four “major milestones,” 88 percent of 25-to-34-year-olds in 1975 fell into groups that included living away from parents, while for 2016’s 25-to-34-year-olds, the percentage was only 76. That’s a pretty big difference.

To be honest, though, I don’t think it’s useful to keep defining “independent household” as “a home situation wherein a person lives either alone or with a spouse/partner and immediate family.” I can’t see any real reason why an independent household couldn’t encompass people living with roommates; indeed, that particular living arrangement is incredibly common these days, and with good reason: Because of stagnant wages and rising rents and property values, most millennials just can’t afford to live without roommates. One recent report found that home prices are rising twice as fast as average earnings growth, while another found that rents in some cities can cost as much as 54 percent of your paycheck if you live alone —but substantially less if you split the costs with roommates.

It stands to reason that if we’re making pretty much the same amount of money folks our age did in 1976, but our rents and home prices have skyrocketed, then of course we’d find ways to make our household situations cheaper. How else are we supposed to, y’know, live?

Every time a report like this one comes out, I always find myself underlining the same two points: One, what’s possible for one generation might not be possible for another due to the differences in the economic landscapes of the times; and two, just because something was previously done a certain way doesn’t mean that it’s the only way to do it. If anything, I’d argue that millennials have proven ourselves to be enormously adaptable: We can’t make much headway in the job market with just a high school diploma, so more of us are going to college. Buying a house is typically too expensive for the wages we make, so we create other living situations that are more financially sustainable for us. That’s not something to be derided; it’s something to be applauded. We’re allowed to be different, and it’s time we started acknowledging — not bemoaning — that fact.